Tasha: Okay, guys. I’m curious whether your experience with watching Gareth Edwards’ new 2014 take on Godzilla was anything like mine. I kept feeling déjà vu throughout, not primarily because the film follows in the huge, three-toed footsteps of the previous Godzilla movies, but because the way Edwards shoots giant beasties is so familiar from his 2010 indie debut, Monsters. Edwards reportedly made Monsters on a shoestring $500,000 budget, while Godzilla cost $160 million. Monsters is largely a character piece about people trying to navigate in the destructive wake of the unseen monsters, while Godzilla is seriously geeked about actually watching that destruction happen. But there’s a clear throughline between the two films, tied to how Edwards treats his ginormous cast with stately dignity, whether they’re seen in full through the viewfinders of jet planes and heavy weaponry, from close-up perspectives where a leg or a flank fills the screen, or from human-eye views where they seem to tower to the sky. And it’s easy to watch the former film and see it as a proof of concept, as Edwards proving he can handle the effects, tone, and aesthetic of this kind of film, and it’s safe for producers to trust him with the keys to the kingdom.
There’s a myth that for today’s indie filmmakers, that first film is largely meant as a foot in Hollywood’s door, a calling card that says, “I can do this, coach, now send me up to the big leagues.” The idea devalues the entire concept of indie film, but it’s still a persistent narrative, underlined by every Kevin Smith or Robert Rodriguez who shoots an ultra-cheap film with his friends, then goes on to direct big-budget movies. Theoretically, everyone’s dream is to direct tentpole films, which is why it confuses people when, say, Jon Favreau drops back from directing Iron Man films to put out his own modest indie. And why interviewers so often ask people like Richard Ayoade and Wes Anderson whether they want to take on a big franchise next. (Talking to Shortlist.com, Ayoade joked that he’s heartbroken at not being called up for Thor 3. Anderson similarly told EW that he wanted to do a Bond movie called Mission: Deferred, where Bond just sits around between gigs. It’s a predictable question, but I like when interviewers ask, because the answers are often fun.) What do you think is the state of the “calling-card movie” these days? It obviously does exist as a phenomenon, but is it the norm? Why is it such a persistent narrative?
Matt: It’s a persistent narrative because independent filmmakers in recent years have persistently followed it. Edwards is the latest example, but he’s hardly the only one. Throw a dart at a release calendar for the next couple summers, and you’re likely to hit something directed by an up-and-coming filmmaker coming off a calling-card movie, like Marc Webb (who followed (500) Days Of Summer with the Amazing Spider-Man franchise) and Colin Trevorrow (whose tiny Safety Not Guaranteed opened the mammoth stone gates to Jurassic World). Most of the older-guard directors with blockbusters in the next couple months—from Bryan Singer (X-Men: Days Of Future Past) to Doug Liman (Edge Of Tomorrow)—had similar career paths, parlaying one or two personal movies into a decade or more of large-scale filmmaking.
It’s easy to understand why: Large-scale filmmaking pays. If Godzilla cost $160 million, Edwards’ salary for making it was almost certainly several times the entire budget for Monsters. I wonder, though, if this younger generation of directors is just a wee bit more susceptible to the siren song of these offers, if only because the blockbusters that are being made today are new versions of all the junk they (and I) enjoyed as kids: comic-books, Saturday-morning television shows, action figures, and so on. Trevorrow, for example, grew up “a huge fan of the [Jurassic Park] trilogy.” What lifelong Jurassic Park fan would turn down the opportunity to make their own Jurassic Park movie? Not many, and most would probably do it for free. At the point, the millions of dollars they get for the work is just a very lovely icing on the cake.
I guess what I wonder about is why we don’t see more directors going the Favreau route, and returning to their indie roots following a period of big-budget moviemaking. We often hear about actors doing “one for me, and one for them”—taking a lucrative gig on something mainstream so they can afford to take creative risks on something a little edgier—but we rarely hear similar stories about directors. Is it because directing is such a time-consuming process, and filmmakers only have so many years to take advantage of their bankability? Or is there some other potential reason I’m overlooking?
Scott: The phrase “calling-card movie” is a pejorative, suggesting that certain indie filmmakers are making those scrappy first movies solely as auditions. Granted, by using that phrase, we’re making assumptions about the motives of filmmakers that may not be fair or accurate: It’s possible that Webb had a great personal investment in (500) Days Of Summer, and wasn’t merely parlaying that project into bigger opportunities. But I see a continuity between Edwards’ Monsters and his Godzilla that I’m not seeing in Webb’s work, and that winds up giving (500) Days Of Summer an aspirational quality rather than an artistic one.
Of course, this has been happening for a long time, especially in the years since Sundance “evolved” from a showcase for independent film to a marketplace with high financial stakes. Edward Burns wasn’t able to turn The Brothers McMullen into a career making mid-budget Woody Allen movies for major studios, but that film still strikes me as a good example of the conventionality that often seeps into independent movies that behave like Hollywood on a shoestring. (Though no matter what you think of the quality of Burns’ work, he’s subsequently shown a commitment to making small, character-driven pieces, regardless of Hollywood’s support.) Before I even knew Trevorrow was doing Jurassic World, I caught up with Safety Not Guaranteed and wrote this in a Letterboxd review: “The perfect example of the indie calling-card movie: looks great, quirky as hell, totally useless.” While I don’t necessarily begrudge filmmakers for wanting money and success on a larger scale, it’s nonetheless disappointing, watching independent films that feel like a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.
Keith: Can I offer a few words in defense of the calling-card movie? It basically boils down to this: Filmmakers who want to keep working don’t have as many options as they used to, beyond taking on work for major studios. In short, it isn’t the 1990s anymore, and Burns, who got started in the 1990s, is the exception, in that he’s been able to carve out a career making modestly budgeted personal films. (It no doubt helps that he can supplement his income by acting.) Fifteen or 20 years ago, it seemed like there would be a new film from, say, Todd Solondz or Hal Hartley every couple of years, but that hasn’t been the case. Those who have survived—from Quentin Tarantino to Steven Soderbergh to Spike Lee to Richard Linklater—have done so by forging a stronger connection to the mainstream film industry in one way or another. True, none of them made their debuts with films that doubled as auditions for studio work, but with so many films out there, and the economics of indie films making it hard-to-impossible to sustain a career as an indie director, today’s directors don’t necessarily have the luxury of time available in the past. It’s get noticed or fade away out there.
Tasha: I’m with Keith, and I’ll go further: I’m loath to ever try to read filmmakers’ minds and retroactively ascribe intentions to them based on where their careers go. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over a couple of decades of interviewing creators, it’s that they almost never plan their careers; just getting one film made, out into the world, and then noticed is such a huge trial, and a huge financial risk, that actual real-world people often don’t see very far past the effort to make it all happen. Dismissing all that work as just an effort to get a toe into Hollywood seems so elitist and condescending to me, the easy, hand-waving criticism of spectators who’ve never been through something similar themselves. Part of what critics do is look at a creator’s career and try to find throughlines, but I’m much more interested in doing that aesthetically or thematically than trying to say what they were thinking about their art and its intentions at any given point—especially since people in any walk of life are so prone to looking back on their own histories and mentally altering their past intentions to fit their present personalities. If filmmakers (like anyone else in the world) see their lives differently at age 44 than they did at age 22, who am I to come along and claim I know what they were thinking at both ages, and that it fits into this specific narrative cliché?
There’s an underlying assumption in the way people talk about calling-card movies (even in this Conversation) that an indie filmmaker who makes a Hollywood movie is selling out, and that a first-time filmmaker who goes the indie route isn’t learning the craft, testing the waters, or telling the first story in a series of them, but cynically gaming the system somehow, flying under false cover in the indie world while drooling for the chance to jump ship. That goes along with the assumption that indie movies are inherently more creative and have more value than studio films. That may largely be true—I don’t know anyone who’d choose Kevin Smith’s Mallrats or Dogma over Clerks, or Bryan Singer’s Jack The Giant Slayer or even his X-Men movies over The Usual Suspects. But I will take Spike Lee’s 25th Hour over She’s Gotta Have It, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers over the comparatively anonymous indie he just wrote and produced, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! and Haywire over a lot of his little indie experiments. The directors who switch back and forth between indies and Hollywood—whether they’re the rare “one for me, one for them” people Matt wants to see more of (there are a few out there; Soderbergh is one), or just chasing any available route to getting a movie made—often produce clunkers and winners on both sides of the fence. I understand why none of us want to see Benh Zeitlin or Ryan Coogler run off to direct mega-budgeted Adam Sandler comedies or G.I. Joe sequels, but can we acknowledge that making a studio movie—or even wanting to make one—isn’t inherently morally and artistically void?
Scott: Let me push back, but with a note first. It seems to me that the notion of independent filmmakers “selling out” by making movies in Hollywood has all but disappeared in much the same way it has for music. I can remember lots of tension in the 1990s between indie bands like Pavement and the major-label acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, who were cashing in on “alternative” rock music. (“Songs mean a lot / when songs are bought” is still one of my favorite Pavement lyrics.) But as making even a modest living in independent music or film became less and less feasible, those cries of selling out have been muted, by and large. There’s no real stigma attached to making movies for a studio; the blowback comes from cases where filmmakers seem to compromise their own vision in doing so, which is a separate (but related) matter.
That said, I feel resentful whenever I encounter an indie film that seems to play by Hollywood rules even when it doesn’t have to. I feel like I’m not watching a film so much as bearing witness to a transaction between some imagined executive and a director looking for a place at the studio table. At the height of the Sundance marketplace, when every studio had a boutique arm (Warner Independent Pictures, anyone?), I suppose it was only natural that filmmakers made movies that went after whatever multi-million dollar deal they could muster. We’re seeing less of it these days, as only a handful have survived, but looking at a movie like The Way, Way Back, there’s really nothing to mark it as “independent” other than budget—it’s just a dumpier version of a comedy Hollywood could make on its own.
Matt: Right. And I think what gets really frustrating is the way these ideas affect people’s reactions to films. Some viewers will give “independent” movies a pass simply because of their perceived artistic integrity; style points for creative fortitude, as it were. The sacrifices indie directors make to produce their work are often commendable—and sometimes remarkable. But at other times, their work is just as calculated for commercial appeal (if not more) than big studio productions. That doesn’t mean their calling-card movies are bad, either; it just means they don’t deserve to be automatically graded on a curve because someone maxed out some credit cards to make it.
To bring this back to Gareth Edwards, it seemed like people were kinder to his Monsters specifically because of how it was made. Admittedly, how it was made was mighty impressive; it was shot on a shoestring, and Edwards designed all its special effects himself, with off-the-shelf computer software. That alone made it an achievement. But in my mind, it didn’t negate the fact that most of the movie around those special effects was a formulaic mismatched-romance road-trip movie. Many Monsters reviews praised the film for its low-budget ingenuity. Does that mean if Edwards had shot the same script for $10 million for a mini-major like Lionsgate or Open Road, it would have been a worse movie? Conversely, if Edwards’ Godzilla cost $160 million, does that make it inherently worse than Monsters, even though it has, in my mind, a similar problem with bland characters and dialogue that get in the way of the incredible production design and visuals?
Keith: Hmm… I don’t want to get too deep into Monsters, and I agree with you about the awkward characters. But you fail to note the strong—heavy-handed, really—political elements, which aren’t much in evidence in Godzilla, to my eyes. That said, you’re right that the awkward way Edwards handles the characters in Monsters is in evidence in Godzilla, too, though it’s a little less conspicuous, since he has much better actors working for him. And maybe that’s the takeaway from this discussion: so-called calling-card movies serve as calling cards in more ways than one. They alert studios about the talent that’s out there, while also demonstrating what strengths and weaknesses filmmakers will bring with them. The Marc Webb who made (500) Days Of Summer, with its intoxicatingly slick style and ultimately facile handling of its winning characters is the same guy who showed up for Amazing Spider-Man.
Tasha: But by the same token, the same guy who knew how to make believable, interesting monsters with off-the-shelf software did some amazing things with Godzilla and the MUTOs he’s fighting in the new film. I understand why cinephiles feel that filmmakers who leave indies to make tentpoles are being lost from the fold of the righteous, like Amish kids who head off to rumspringa and never come back. But I’d also like to think that studios snapping up people who make successful indies gets more indie-minded directors into the Hollywood fold—people with at least some experience with (and interest in) working with actors, and telling stories they care about, and doing a lot with a little. The Atlantic suggested last year that calling-card indies might even be the eventual answer to the troublesome lack of women directing and producing in Hollywood. I’m not saying that every time I see a good independent movie, I think, “Wow, I can’t wait until this director gets $200 million and an endless stream of branding and product-placement requirements from a major studio!” But I’d rather judge films on their own artistic merits than on my suspicions about what the directors might be secretly hoping those films will eventually do for their résumés.